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Samuel Clayton: Forger, Freemason, Freeman

Dublin-born Samuel Clayton, a convicted forger who produced Australia’s first bank notes.


The story of the convicted master forger from Dublin who founded Freemasonry in Australia and produced Australia’s first bank notes.




Commission Court, Dublin, 1815. Samuel Clayton did not look much like a criminal. Standing just shy of 5 foot 5, the brown-haired engraver beheld the court with hazel eyes that peered out from behind wire-framed spectacles. His freemason friends had put in a good word for him. His dutiful record as a church-going Protestant was noted.

However, Clayton was found guilty of forgery and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia where he reinvented himself as a successful businessman and become one of the colony’s leading lights.

The Claytons were Protestant artisans based in Dublin City. Born in about 1777, Samuel was the eldest son of Benjamin Clayton, a well-established engraver who resided in Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street) on the city’s north side during the boom years of the Georgian Age. His grandfather, also Benjamin, was a clockmaker based in Temple Bar, but it was engraving that became the skillset for Samuel and his brothers who learned the trade from their father. In the days before photography, this meant they had to engrave a replica of the picture onto wood or metal (usually copper plates), onto which ink was then applied, allowing the image to be printed.

Like his father, Samuel attended the Dublin Society Drawing Schools which were then under the direction of Henry Aaron Baker and located in Grafton Street. By 1793 16-year-old Samuel was making a splash in the publishing world, engraving the abbey in Castledermot for the publication Anthologia Hibernica. He was also working as a miniature painter and, of most relevance, producing revenue stamps for the Stamp Office in Powerscourt House on South William Street. These stamps were used as a form of revenue tax in a variety of transactions, such as cheques, will probates, insurance, newspaper sales, excise duty and alcohol sales.

The Claytons had close connections to Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, from at least 1800 when Samuel’s father engraved the new seal for the borough of Baltinglass. In 1802 Samuel married Jane Maguire of Baltinglass but she died soon after the birth of their only son Benjamin. He was married again in 1807 to Emma Johnson, also of Baltinglass, who became a loving stepmother to Benjamin at their home on Capel Street, Dublin. [1]

Samuel was one of Dublin’s most diligent Freemasons, initially attending Lodge 374, which met in Chapelizod, and later Lodge 6, where he was installed as Worshipful Master in 1813. He clearly enjoyed the convivial company of his fellow brothers which greatly boosted his network of contacts across the city. However, there was considerable shock at the close of 1815 when this upstanding citizen and respected member of the Grand Lodge – a bastion of moral and spiritual values – was arrested on a charge of forgery.

The case against Clayton centred on an investigation into forged revenue stamps that had defrauded the revenue by a whopping £200,000. Samuel was one of eight men taken into custody and committed to Newgate Prison which stood in present-day St. Michan’s Park near Smithfield. Although no evidence was found during an extensive search of his home, he was found guilty of supplying forged stamps amounting to about £45 to Messrs. Dickinson and Finlay, notaries public, as well as to the Anchor Brewery on Usher Street. [2]  James McClelland, Baron of the Court of Exchequer, sentenced him to seven year’s penal servitude in Australia.

Clayton was one of approximately 26,500 Irish convicts transported to Australia between 1791 and 1853. After nearly six months in Newgate, he was shipped south to Cobh and placed on the ship Surry. On the plus side, he was accompanied by his wife Emma and son Benjamin for whose transit he was able to pay thee fare. The 150 convicts on board were supervised by 30 soldiers from the 46th Regiment of Foot. There were also two missionaries and a botanist on board. Most of the convicts hailed from Tipperary where there had been an upsurge in Whiteboy aggression since the Napoleonic Wars ended at Waterloo in June 1815. At 38 years of age, Clayton was one of the older convicts; the average age was 27 but there were two 14-year-olds and a 65-year-old on board.

Samuel’s life is the subject of Margaret Smith’s book ‘Samuel Clayton: Forger, Freemason, Freeman’, which I had the honour of launching in the Freemason’s Hall in Dublin in 2017. Margaret’s research was much boosted by the extraordinary trove of archival material that had become available online to genealogists and historians seeking records on former convicts.

The passengers were entitled to feel nervous as the Surry set sail from Cobh in July 1816. On the ship’s previous outing, 51 people had died of typhus, including the master and the surgeon. However, a strict regime imposed by the ship’s captain ensured that all but one passenger survived the 159-day voyage, via Rio de Janeiro, to Port Jackson, Sydney. They arrived in a rainstorm shortly before Christmas and were promptly inspected by Lachlan Macquarie, the Scottish-born Governor of New South Wales.

Macquarie was a rather brilliant, forward-thinking man. He had realised that the best chance of success for the fledgling Australian colony was to convert convicts into good, honest citizens. As such, he needed role models and not surprisingly his eyes lit upon Samuel Clayton. Clayton was a literate, educated and skilled craftsman with no previous convictions. He was also a Protestant and, like Macquarie, a Freemason.

Although he appears to have been assigned to work for a merchant and auctioneer in Sydney on arrival, Clayton immediately submitted a petition to have his sentence mitigated. Astonishingly, less than two months after the convicted forger’s arrival down under, he was commissioned to engrave the copper plates for Australia’s first banknotes. One of these plates was sold at auction in 2014 for the equivalent of €230,000.

By January 1818 he had received a convict pardon on condition that he remained in New South Wales until his seven-year term expired. He soon established his own base at Pitt Street, from where he operated as a painter, engraver and copper plate engraver. By the 1820s he was being applauded as ‘the finest silversmith in the colony’. As well as creating the distinguished service medals awarded to the 48th Foot, he made the silver prize medals for the Sydney Grammar School. The school was established by the notorious Laurence Hynes Halloran, a poet and unordained clergyman from County Meath, who had also been convicted of forgery. Clayton later opened a perfumery and sold an early form of camera.

Clayton was also eager to re-join the Freemasons but as the only lodges in Australia at this time were military, he sought and obtained permission from the Grand Lodge of Ireland to form a civil lodge. This was the first regular lodge in Australia and, as such, Clayton is today hailed as the Father of Freemasonry in Australia.

By the time his freedom was formalised in 1824, he could assure friends in Ireland that he could ‘always afford a bottle of good madeira at my table.’

Emma died young in 1823 and Clayton was married thirdly just three months later. His only child Benjamin studied medicine under the eminent Dr William Bland. In 1828 he returned to his Irish birthplace and obtained a licence in midwifery from the Rotunda in Dublin. This was an age when there were an ‘abundance’ of corpses available for dissection in Dublin on account of the infamous “sack ‘em uppers” who robbed the city’s graveyards by night.

By 1830 Benjamin was back in Australia where he opened a practice as a surgeon and midwife at Windsor on the Hawkesbury River. Samuel moved to Windsor too. Meanwhile, Samuel’s younger brother Robert Clayton arrived into Sydney with his son in 1834, having also been convicted of forgery by an Irish court.

Benjamin later acquired 2,661 acres of fine grazing land near Yass, which he named Baltinglass after his birthplace in County Wicklow. This was the very fringe of occupied territory, as became apparent when his neighbour John Kennedy Hume was murdered during a shoot-out with the ill-famed Whitton gang in 1840.

As well as being a much-prized doctor, Benjamin succeeded as a winemaker, winning gold medal for his red wines at the Australian Botanic and Horticultural Exhibition in 1848.

Samuel Clayton died at Baltinglass in the summer of 1853 ‘at a very advanced period of life’. The property was sold soon afterwards although its new owner continued to produce quality wines such as ‘Sparkling Baltinglass’. Benjamin himself died the following year, aged 49, but his descendants live today while Samuel Clayton’s works survive in various archives in Dublin and Sydney.




‘Samuel Clayton: Forger, Freemason, Freeman’ (Anchor Books, 2017) by Margaret Smith is available via or







[1] Samuel’s brother Benjamin married Eleanor Creathorne of Baltinglass at St Brigid’s Church of Ireland, Stillorgan, County Dublin in 1808.

[2] Mr James Finlay (sometimes spelled Findlay in error), Notary Public, had an address at 11 Eustace Street from at least 1799 – 1802 (and perhaps for a decade or so later). In 1817 he was recorded as having an address at Fownes Street.